Donald Fry: Maryland faces science, technology workforce challenges

By Donald C. Fry

Maryland’s business and elected leaders are looking to convert our state’s celebrated strengths in research and our highly-educated workforce into expanding science and technology business sectors that will be major drivers of our future economy.

Maryland ranks second in the nation in attracting federal research expenditures — first in attracting bioscience research funding. We also rank second in the percentage of our population with college degrees and first for our concentration of doctoral scientists and engineers.

That’s impressive, but if you think all we have to do is sit back and let this abundance of funding and talent drive Maryland’s business future, think again, according to a recent report by a Governor’s task force that studied workforce and business issues related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The task force, chaired by William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, and June Streckfus, executive director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, recently issued findings relating to two key challenges that merit close attention from our state’s policy makers.

First, Maryland is a nationally-recognized leader in research, but it ranks only in the middle of the pack of competing states in converting that research into business growth and jobs.

Second, though Maryland’s workforce is highly educated, we lag behind competitors when it comes to workforce development in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Overcoming these challenges rests largely on our state’s education system, according to the STEM task force.

Maryland colleges currently produce only two-thirds the number of qualified graduates needed to fill existing science and technology jobs in our state – much less the future jobs we seek to create. There are approximately 6,000 job openings per year in Maryland for workers with skills in science, technology, engineering or math, but our state’s institutions generate only about 4,000 STEM graduates annually. 

Only about a third of Maryland’s high school graduates complete the minimal math and science coursework that would allow them to enroll in college-level STEM courses. And 30 percent of Maryland’s college-prep high school graduates need remedial courses in college, the task force notes.

To add to these challenges, Maryland faces another issue – an aging workforce. Maryland’s 220,000 professional, scientific, and technical employees now ranks second in the nation as a percentage of the state’s overall workforce. But with its graying workforce and a shortage of STEM teachers, Maryland “cannot assume that it can maintain this advantage unless and until it attends to the emerging challenges facing the state in STEM education and workforce development,” the task force reports.

Maryland is not alone in facing the dual challenges of having a skilled-but-aging workforce and meeting accelerating business needs for highly-skilled workers. Nationally, more than 60 percent of businesses say it’s difficult to find qualified workers, reports a December 2009 Kiplinger Letter.

Meanwhile baby boomers, our most educated and skilled employees who make up 40 percent of the U.S. workforce, are starting to retire. Approximately 34 million of our nation’s workers will retire by 2018, creating a much greater rate of replacement for skilled workers than employers have had to deal with in past decades, the Kiplinger Letter reports.

In Maryland, and nationally, there is an acute shortage of teachers in fields including chemistry, computer science, earth and space science, mathematics and physics. That shortage is compounded in Maryland by a retention rate for STEM teachers of only 50 percent, reports the governor’s task force.

These are all warning signs of looming workforce issues that have serious implications for the economic future for our state and our nation. In Maryland, we’re not yet in crisis, but we have a lot of work to do to preserve and enhance our leadership position as a location for science and technology industries.

STEM task force recommendations for Maryland include better aligning elementary and secondary school curriculum with college and workplace requirements; tripling the number of science and math teachers educated in Maryland; increasing the rate of teacher retention; and strengthening our pipeline of college graduates who major in science, math, technology or engineering. 

This is a task force report that we cannot allow to gather dust. We need to be focused and serious about achieving these goals, for Maryland’s sake. 

States that figure out how to aggressively and effectively meet these workforce development challenges will be the states that thrive in the 21st century.

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